North Carolina Democrats sold out their annual party dinner, raising more money than ever at the event. More than 6,000 new people turned out for organizing meetings across the state this year, even though it is not an election year. And Democrats have organized in more than 240 additional voting districts, helping the state party get a foothold in new communities.
Sixteen months away from the 2018 general election, Democrats are banking on turning that enthusiasm into votes that break Republican super-majorities in the state legislature and flip Congressional seats to help Democrats retake the U.S. House.
The state Democratic Party raised nearly $1.7 million in the first half of the year. The North Carolina Republican Party total is one-fourth that amount. Democrats had $1.9 million in cash on hand while Republicans had $182,000. Figures were in campaign reports due Friday, according to The Associated Press.
The next elections are November 2018 but could move up due to redistricting.
Republican finances are in line with similar periods and doesn't include other GOP sources, like $475,000 raised by Senate leader Phil Berger.
“The party that succeeds in these elections is the party that’s most fired up — and that’s the Democrats,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist at Nexus Strategies in Raleigh. “They are fired up about what’s happening in D.C. and what’s happening in Raleigh.”
But turning that anger and enthusiasm into election victories is far from a sure thing even in a swing state like North Carolina. A recent study of voting trends in mid-term elections showed troubling participation numbers among core Democratic Party constituencies, and the party’s registration numbers continue to fall.
Since Barack Obama narrowly carried the state on his way to the presidency in November of 2008, nearly 226,000 Democrats have dropped from the voter rolls in North Carolina. In the same time span, an additional 52,000 have registered as Republicans and more than 651,000 have registered as unaffiliated.
Republicans gained control of both state houses in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction and earned veto-proof majorities in 2012 even though Obama was back on the ballot — using districts drawn in 2011 that, as Democrats point out often, have been declared illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court. Obama lost the state by two percentage points in 2012, and Republican Donald Trump won the battleground state by 3.6 percentage points in 2016.
“I don’t believe North Carolina is a purple state. I believe North Carolina is a red state and getting redder,” said Susan Myrick, elections policy analyst at conservative policy group Civitas Institute in Raleigh. “I only see it getting more red.”
In addition to the state legislature, Republicans hold both U.S. Senate spots and 10 of 13 U.S. House seats. But Democrats won the governor’s mansion and control of the state Supreme Court in 2016, proving they’re capable of winning statewide elections.
“When I think of a red state, I think of Kansas or where they have no Democrats elected statewide,” said Wayne Goodwin, the chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, who lost his state insurance commissioner re-election bid last fall. “By the measures, we are a purple state. Results are dependent upon the candidates and issues of a given election — and a fair district.”
Next year’s election could go a long way toward determining which theory is correct.
Democrats are gearing up.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted three North Carolina seats — those currently held by George Holding (2nd District, which covers the northern, eastern and southern Wake County as well as parts of Johnston, Franklin, Harnett and Wayne counties), Robert Pittenger (9th District, which runs along the South Carolina border and includes Lumberton and parts of Fayetteville and Mecklenburg County) and Ted Budd (13th District, which starts in Greensboro and stretches west and south) in its bid to flip control of the U.S. House.
Gov. Roy Cooper launched his “Break the Majority” campaign earlier this month, announcing that he’s raised more than $1 million for the effort to win enough state legislative seats to uphold his vetoes. Democrats would need to gain three seats in the House or six seats in the Senate to break the Republican super-majorities that allow them to override Cooper’s vetoes.
Goodwin said hundreds of potential candidates have contacted the party about running themselves for the state legislature or promoting another person to run. The state must redraw its legislative map after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that 28 districts were illegal racially gerrymandered. The new maps will be used in the 2018 election, but have yet to be made public.
The state also had to redraw its congressional districts before the 2016 election because lawmakers relied too heavily on race when drawing them in 2011.
“Before you can take the majority, you have to break the majority,” Goodwin said. “(The enthusiasm) indicates that mid-terms will see a lot more interest by voters than typically so. These are examples of how the enthusiasm of Democrats and even dormant Democrats or Democrat-leaning unaffiliated voters could lead to turnout in greater numbers for the mid-terms.”
In order to do so, Democrats need to turn out its base and attract disaffected Trump voters. But turnout among unmarried women, people of color and millennials (typically described as born between 1981 and 1997) — all big parts of the Democratic base — is expected to plummet in 2018, according to new data from the Voter Participation Center.
More than 4.7 million North Carolinians voted in the 2016 general election, which included highly contested presidential, Senate and gubernatorial races.
The Voter Participation Center predicted that 1.7 million fewer voters will participate in North Carolina’s 2018 election than voted in the 2016 – with 1.1 million of them being unmarried women, people of color and millennials, what the center deems the “rising American electorate (RAE).” The Voter Participation Center is a group that wants to increase civic engagement among those Americans.
That drop-off could be much larger since 2018 will be the first even-year election in North Carolina since 2006 without a presidential, U.S. Senate or gubernatorial race on the ballot.
In presidential election years (2008, 2012 and 2016), turnout among registered voters was in the high 60s. In mid-term years with a Senate election (2010 and 2014), turnout among registered voters was in the mid 40s, according to data from the State Board of Elections.
In 2006, turnout among registered voters was 37 percent. If 37 percent of currently registered voters turn out in 2018, the total electorate would be just 2.5 million.
Amanda Wehrwein, a 38-year-old Raleigh resident who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, said she is “98 percent confident” that she would vote in the 2018 election. “I’m so frustrated with all of the negative stories that are coming out (of Washington). It’s so depressing that I’ve really stepped back, which is frustrating because I want to know what is going on, but it just churns my stomach,” she said.
The reasons for the decline among the so-called RAE population are numerous, said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who authored the study for the Voter Participation Center. They include less information about the candidates and about how to vote and less engagement in non-presidential years. Millennials, in particular, are more mobile than other segments of the population, making them harder to track down using traditional get-out-the-vote methods.
“One-third to 50 percent (of millennials) will not be where they were two and four years ago,” Lake said. “Some of that registering is re-registering.”
Marina Vandervort, a 28-year-old who lives in Raleigh, said she plans to vote but access to polling places and times could impact her ability to get to the polls.
“Depending on if the voting is being held during business hours, I’m going to say 70 percent chance (of voting),” said Vandervort, who voted for Clinton and considers herself liberal. “I feel like if there was online voting, they would get so any more people to vote.”
Unaffiliated voters now make up more than 30 percent of all registered voters and have nearly matched Republican registration. Democrats still lead in registration in North Carolina at 39 percent, although some of them often vote Republican. They used to be called “Jessecrats” when they backed the late Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.
The state allows unaffiliated voters to choose which party primary they want to participate in each election cycle. Sam Searcy, a Democratic U.S. House candidate running in the 2nd District, said he changed his voter registration to unaffiliated last year in the presidential primary. He probably wasn’t alone. Other unaffiliated voters simply don’t want to associate with either party.
“What led that person to that point is probably dissatisfaction with both parties,” Myrick said.
Said Goodwin: “For both parties, it is vital that parties become more adept at reaching unaffiliated voters. It will make us a stronger party and more focused as we strive for hearts, souls, minds and votes of unaffiliated voters. Unaffiliated voters will swing a race statewide. In years to come, unaffiliated voters will decide races.”
Dissatisfaction with the president could also play a role.
The out-of-power party has gained U.S. House seats in each of the last three elections — with Democrats gaining 30 seats in 2006 under President George W. Bush and Republicans winning a net of 63 seats in 2010 under Obama. The president’s party has lost House seats in 20 of the last 22 mid-term elections. Of those 20 losses, 16 involved double-digit losses.
Trump, who carried the state with 49 percent of the vote, is polling at 42 percent approval and 53 percent disapproval in North Carolina now, according to Gallup. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll put Trump’s national approval rating at 36 percent.
“The Republican base gets less and less motivated with Donald Trump as president and the daily grind that Trump is going through,” said Jackson, the Democratic strategist. “His base is less motivated. The hard-core Republicans got control of the House, got control of the Senate, won the White House and they can’t repeal ACA, can’t pass tax reform. It’s not helping engage Republicans. They thought they were electing a majority for action. Conversely, on the Democratic side, they’ve got a ton of energy.”
Staff writer Jeremy Frieling contributed to this report.
Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; @MurphinDC